Contributor Spotlight: Nickole Brown

Memorious contributor Nickole Brown recently published Write It: 100 Poetry Prompts to Inspire with her wife, poet Jessica Jacobs. The book emerged from their experiences teaching poetry to students of all ages, from high school students to college students to seniors, and they have created a companion website that highlights the workshops they offer.

Last spring, Brown sat down with our interviewer Keelan Hawkins to talk about her most recent poetry book, her poetry chapbook The Donkey Elegies (Sibling Rivalry Press). Brown has published two previous full collections: Sister (Red Hen Press; Sibling Rivalry Press) and Fanny Says (BOA Editions Ltd.). Her chapbook To Those Who Were Our First Gods, won Rattle’s chapbook contest and was subsequently published in 2018. Brown has also received grants from the Kentucky Foundation for Women, the Kentucky Arts Council, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Originally from Kentucky, Brown now lives in Asheville NC with her wife, poet Jessica Jacobs, where Brown sits on the advisory board for Orison Books and teaches intermittently in UNCA’s Great Smokies Writing Program.  Here is their conversation:

KH: This project began as a ghazal of twenty-five couplets that eventually grew into twenty-five separate sections of an essay-in-poems. Could you talk about that process? 

NB: Yes, this project seemed to have a life of its own, and like my frizzy hair, the idea I had for how it should take shape held little sway in terms of what it wanted to make of itself. 

The work had a rather inconspicuous start—back in 2016, it was a rather clunky little poem plainly named “Donkey.” Based on my experience as a volunteer helping to tend two donkeys at the Western North Carolina Nature Center, I was fairly convinced I had written everything I had to say, which was sadly indicative of how I used to think of the species, donkeys being such an easily taken-for-granted animal, easy to overlook and dismiss. 

But, oh, how wrong I was! Once I began to do the research, what I learned about donkeys amazed me at every corner. It deepened not only my connection to the beings I worked with at the Center but also gave me an appreciation for their absolute necessity to civilization as we know it. In particular, I was changed by a little volume from Reaktion Books’ Animal Series, written by Jill Bough of Australia. With her insights, the poem took on more and more gravity, calling forth all sorts of bits and pieces into its orbit until it broke from the miserly container into which I’d originally poured it. 

Slowly, each of those couplets morphed into thin, lyric poems, and then, three years later, each of those poems gained enough flesh to become twenty-five fragments of an essay of sorts. The shape it ultimately took surprised me, but again, I had to realize I wasn’t in control, not exactly. No, the words told me what they wanted to be, or more precisely, the donkeys told me what I needed to write.

KH: The chapbook is a genre-defying. What models—either poets/authors or previous collections—did you utilize when making the jump from that ghazal to this essay-in-poems?

NB: For years now I’ve been fascinated by what happens when the barriers of form are broken down, when poetry is knocked from its pedestal, so to speak, and the pragmatics of prose are finessed to carry the lyricism of poetry. Put another way, I love to see what happens when the democratic, accessible form of prose is quickened with poetry. Being the nerd girl I am, I find the scientific fact of the living world irresistible, but I equally love language and the texture it can lend to the communication of those facts, making the expression of them rich with experiments and subversions and meanderings.

This is what drove my years working for the Marie Alexander Series, an imprint of White Pine Press dedicated to publishing one book annually. Founded by an advocate of prose poetry named Robert Alexander, the series began with an eye towards the prose poem but eventually opened to collections of flash fiction, short lyric essays, and other hybrid forms. My work with Robert combing through the many submissions every year was fascinating, and working with our authors taught me so much about the possibilities of form. Writers such as Julie Marie Wade, Rochelle Hurt, Re’Lynn Hansen, Sonia Greenfield, Robert Strong, Nicole Stellon O’Donnell, Elisabeth Frost, and Holly Iglesias were instrumental in my thinking about what can be done on the page and gave me permission to experiment. 

In addition, poet and essayist Lia Purpura has always been a particular inspiration to me (if you haven’t read her collections On Lookingor Rough Likeness, go out and get a copy to find yourself changed), and though it’s billed as a nonfiction book, The Forest Unseenby biologist David George Haskell has so much poetry woven into its short chapters that the natural processes he describes absolutely vibrate on the page. Looking back, I also think I learned a tremendous amount from Ander Monson’s Other Electricities, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, and Michael Ondaatjes’s Billy the Kid—books that are all deeply informed but equally defiant, refusing to be penned in one genre or another. Besides, the division between genres, if you really think about it, are false and binary constructions like so many of the divisions we humans make. As Leo Tolstoy wrote over a hundred years ago, “Where the boundary between prose & poetry lies, I shall never be able to understand. . . Poetry is verse: prose is not verse.” 

KH: What role would you say research plays in your writing? Furthermore, do you consider your embodied experiences volunteering at animal sanctuaries a type of research? 

NB: Research has always been an essential part of my work, even when writing from my own life and memories. When I was writing Fanny Says, a biography-in-poems of my tough-as-new-rope grandmother, I took a deep dive into both family lore and history, spending all sorts of time studying not only the stories she told me but learned as much as I could about things such as Clorox (her all-time favorite remedy for just about everything) and Norell (her chosen perfume and signature scent). 

I’m now trying as I can to find words to speak for non-human beings, for animals who before I began this course of study I only knew from the occasional Attenborough-narrated documentary or gruesome road-kill sighting. To remedy that, I’m reading all I possibly can, and I’m ever so grateful for my wife who has watched me with amused but understanding chagrin as I’ve stacked every shelf and available floor surface of my office with book after book after book. 

But reading simply wasn’t enough—especially as I didn’t yet spend time with animals and thus was trying to access something I don’t yet know in my own body. What I mean is that reading—along with countless hours of clips and documentaries and visits to zoos—are all helpful, but they kept me in my head. That’s not where poems come from, and more importantly, a cerebral approach to things is, by all accounts, one of the primary problems of being human in the first place. No, I don’t think any good poem of mine ever sprung from the shoulders up: I need my body to write, need all of my senses to coax the words onto the page. 

That said, after years of spinning my wheels and stuffing my brain with all sorts of animal facts, it wasn’t until I pulled on my muck boots and headed out into the barns and fields that the poems finally began to arrive. I needed, quite literally, my skin and ears and nose to instruct me, needed to get close enough to distinguish not just one species from another but one individual within a species from another. Early on, I was contemplating a vast expanse of the animal kingdom, but now I’m listening to individual animals as I have the privilege to encounter each one. 

The first volunteer opportunity I found was at the nature center I mentioned before, and having no experience whatsoever working with animals, I found myself lending a hand with the domestics. I admit I was initially quite disappointed, hoping as I was to spend time with the otters or bears or racoons there. But meeting the sheep and goats and donkeys was a gift: it made me value animals that I previously overlooked and learn just how each individual there had its own personality as spiced with sass and fear and affection as any person I’ve known. 

After my time at the nature center, I slowly gained experience and began lending a hand at other places—first at a farm sanctuary named Animal Haven of Asheville, then at an equine rehabilitation and therapy center, Heart of Horse Sense, and now, I help as I can at Appalachian Wildlife Refuge with the triage of injured and orphaned wildlife. Each place has taught me innumerable lessons, the most important of which is that while I thought I was signing up to go and help animals, it was the animals who ultimately helped me. I know that’s a terrible cliché, but it’s true. There is no better teacher of the present moment than a non-human animal, and as I have a tendency to disassociate and lock myself away in my own thoughts, their presence brings me back to my true self in innumerable ways I’m only beginning to understand. 

KH: A lot of different types of work went into this project—working at animal sanctuaries, research, playing with poetic form—what was your favorite part of creating this collection?

NB: My time with the animals has been, by far, my favorite part. At Animal Haven, there’s a three-legged ram named Gulliver who wags his little sheep tail when I say hello in the mornings, there’s a blind cow named Elsa who leans in to rest her gargantuan head in the cradle of my arms, and these past few weeks, a spotted pig named Scarlet has shown us just how she can fetch sticks and sit on command (with the incentive of a treat, of course). 

At Appalachian Wildlife Refuge, I’ve fed box turtles as uniquely colored and patterned as autumn leaves, and I’ve learned how to administer formula to orphan opossums and squirrels, many of which grew well enough to be released back into the wild. Just this past Monday, I watched the co-founder Savannah Trantham give nectar through a syringe to an injured hummingbird, and the delicacy and care with which she treated that tiny creature was one of the kindest things I’ve ever seen.

I should qualify this statement though by saying though it’s been my favorite part, my time at these sanctuaries isn’t all sweetness. There’s a lot of poo to be scooped and muck to be scraped, of course, and another part of the job is the grief of a constant stream of infections and injuries (often caused by humans) that kill many of the animals we’re trying so hard to save. It can be heartbreaking work, especially for the full-time staff who put in the day-after-day grind to keep things going, no matter how exhausted they may get.

But this, too, has been such an essential part of what I’m learning, and while it’s difficult, I’d say it’s most important. As I wrote in a poem called “Against Despair: The Kid Goat,”what it has taught me has a lot to do with hope, but not as you might think about hope—not as a nounof feeling, but as a verb, as something you do, no matter how you might feel. 

You see, the continual losses cause a kind of eco-grief that’s hard to overcome, but when your job is to help these animals, you have to do what you can, despite the odds, concentrating on each single life as it comes into your care. I mean, it’s a given that any animal might not survive, and even if it does, the survival of that one individual might not make much of a difference to the species as a whole, especially if it’s suffering at the hands of climate change or habitat destruction. Nevertheless, that one animal may, at the very least, suffer a little less before their death. Better, if we’re successful, that one animal might live out the rest of their life safe and well. It’s hard to say what difference we make, but that’s not the point. You can’t let it matter. What matters is what’s changed for that one particular animal, because to that one animal, what we did makes all the difference in the world. Put a better way, I’ll share with you the quote that I’ve heard more than once from Savannah Trantham at Appalachian Wild: “Saving one {animal} will not change the world, but for that one {animal} the world has changed.”

KH: In the acknowledgments you claim sanctuary is one of your favorite words. While this statement is made about sanctuaries where you volunteer, in poem number three, it feels like the speaker is also being provided sanctuary. Could you speak more towards this reciprocal relationship? 

NB: Absolutely. When I’m among animals, I’m reminded of one essential thing: that I, too, am an animal. By this I mean that despite all the pressures put upon me by the buzzing of the contemporary world and everything I need to do to survive within it, I am still a being, one that exists only with a body, a breathing body of muscle and bone and blood as any other. As such, my time among other animals reminds me of what it is to live within that body, how there is joy in simply turning my face up to the sun, joy in lugging a bale of hay to the barn, joy in being in the presence of others who have little use for talk. It’s deeply healing and stitches me back together in more ways than I can say. 

KH: Many of your poems seem to center around donkeys being in certain places (in war-torn deserts, a tourist trap in Mexico, coalmines, Jerusalem). Could you speak towards the role and/or function of place in this project? 

NB: The point of those different locations was to drive home just how modern civilization has been built, quite literally, on the backs of donkeys. As one of the first species to be domesticated for the purposes of work, donkeys—along with horses, oxen, and later, mules—plowed the fields and carried the stones that built our first cities. As more sure-footed and strong and tractable than most any other livestock, donkeys were often needed to haul the water and grain; they drudged endless circles to grind corn and wheat on great stone mills; they’ve even been drafted to fight our wars. And this didn’t just happen in one country alone; donkeys—wherever they’ve been brought—were useful (and used), most necessary and generally disregarded, made into our laughable punchline of the kingdom. All of humankind owes something to this brute beast of burden, and each poem that pins the map with a specific location is a reminder of how many of us are implicit.

KH: The idea of work is scattered throughout the collection: sometimes it’s lamentable, as with the donkeys in the coalmines; sometimes it’s brutalizing, like the portrayal of donkeys in wartime; and other times work is portrayed as redemption. What considerations did you make when deciding how to portray work? 

NB: What I didn’t realize when first approaching this subject matter was how much my own working-class background would resonate with the historical uses of donkeys. Like the donkeys dropped from planes with parachutes strapped to their backs or forced into the trenches of the first World War, I grew up in the minefield of the many damaged fathers fresh back from Vietnam and, later, I lost more than one friend to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. And like the donkeys who stayed in the coal mines so long they emerged years later completely blind, I too grew up knowing men who come up from those dark tunnels in Kentucky, their lungs shot through with black soot. What’s more, when I was younger I got a taste of what might have been in store for me if I wouldn’t have made it through college, got to feel what it was to be on my feet eight hours a day, what it was to haul buckets of ice and dishwater slop, to eke out a living on the small change thrown into a tip jar. 

All of this, of course, was brought further home when I realized just how most never hesitate to make a donkey joke just as many openly make fun of blue-collar workers or country folks. As I’ve endured more than once, redneck jokes might be tossed around the dinner table even among some of the most educated and well-meaning company I know. There’s something in the human psyche, I think, that causes us to denigrate hardworking members of our society, both human and not. Why? It’s hard to say, but my guess is it makes it easier somehow to accept the fruits of their labors. Worse, perhaps it’s one way of separating ourselves from others by hierarchy and rank so that we aren’t mistaken for a “lower” class and ever made to do that kind of work. It’s something we do to each other, and it’s also something we do to the animals of which we make the most use. Think of the stereotypes around chickens and cows and pigs; they’re the animals we regularly eat, and instead of treating these creatures with any kind of reverence (or even gratitude), we make it easy on ourselves by saying they’re bird-brained or fat and slow or gluttonous and disgusting. It’s a cop out, and to peg the donkey as stubborn and hee-haw dumb is no different. 

KH: Is there anything from this collection you would like to highlight, or are there any more projects currently in the works that you would like to mention here?  

NB: It’s worth saying that when I first began writing these poems, I thought I was writing one project—a bestiary of sorts, I kept saying. I wanted most of all to write poems of the natural world that were not poems of privilege that gaze out the window from a place of comfortable remove. . . .  No, I wanted to step away from the kind of pastorals that always made me (and most of the folks from my childhood in Kentucky) feel shut out of nature and the writing about it. I wanted to speak in a queer, Southern-trash-talking kind of way about nature beautiful, damaged, dangerous, and in desperate need of saving, and that’s just the description that was used for the first chapbook of poems that resulted, a collection of the first nine poems called To Those Who Were Our First Gods. A year later, The Donkey Elegies emerged from these efforts. 

What’s different now is I’m realizing that what I thought was just a project will, if I have my way, be the work of my life. I can think of nothing better than to spend my days learning from our non-human relations, finding ways not to write about them but for them, finding ways to speak in a way that might encourage others to take notice and take care of those outside of our own species, especially before it’s too late. 

Keelan Hawkins received her MFA from Bowling Green State University and is currently a doctoral student at Florida State University.

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